I’m a little upset with Ursula Le Guin, which is not something I ever thought I’d say as I am a bit of a fan. You see, I just picked up my eagerly awaited copy of The Jack Vance Reader and unceremoniously cracked its collectible spine to get to ‘The Languages of Pao’, one of the few gaps left in my sadly shrinking still-to-read Vance list.

I was overjoyed to see that Le Guin had written the foreword, but I must say I winced when I noticed that she writes about Vance using the past tense. I hope I am still right in saying that he is alive. I know that he has had some serious problems with his eyesight and that he is getting on a bit, but I think it a little insensitive to refer to him as if he no longer exists.

In her piece, Le Guin says some thoughtful and generous things about Vance’s work and the novel in question. But later on she begins to attack it for its ideological failings, principally in terms of its ‘complete absence of active women characters’. Le Guin says that she ‘tried to see the story as a critique of male dominance’ but that because of this absence it was an ‘unconvincing’ reading. In the end, she sees the novel as ‘old-fashioned’ and inescapably masculinist, ‘an almost universal failing of the genre at that time’ – the book was first published in 1958.

I’m not so sure about this assessment. The absence of women seems to me to be so pronounced and their treatment in the story so awful (Le Guin is right when she says they are seen as mere appurtenances) that Vance is doing something deliberate, rather than just trundling obliviously down the chauvinistic super-highway. In the story, large numbers of women are procured by the megalomaniacal ‘Wizards’ for a period of ‘indenture’ during which they are expected to bear sons, and after which they are returned to their home planets with any daughters or other ‘defectives’ they have produced. Surely Vance is not simply unconsciously reflecting male mores of the day (I hope!) but consciously constructing a fictional society, a fable – like Animal Farm or The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps he exhibits a little too much of his trademark wry detachment and sometimes cruel irony, but, to me, the issue of the use and abuse of women by men fairly leaps off the pages of this novel screaming.

I do agree with Le Guin that is is a shame that there are no strong female roles here, but this is almost certainly intentional and it fits with the monstrous tone of the story. I know that Vance has been criticised for this before, but I would argue that, through almost all his work, the roles of men and women and their relative status, attitudes and treatment of one another are clearly addressed, though usually heavily satirized. For example, the ‘Flower of Cath’ episode in Planet of Adventure is a classic instance of his fictional portrayal of male-female relations, though not perhaps a very comfortable one. His oeuvre displays a range of finely nuanced and complex approaches to gender and other human issues and also has some notable examples of strong female lead characters: The Jacynth (largely holding her own in To Live Forever back in 1956), Wayness Tamm and Madouc spring to mind; there are many others.

I love Le Guin’s books. A Wizard of Earthsea (a novel that come to think of it is also notable for its lack of powerful women – Serret, Yarrow and the village witch notwithstanding – though I wouldn’t call it dated) is still one of my very favourite novels, as are The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I’m glad Le Guin has expressed her views about Vance here – I’d love to know more – and it is refreshing to get some critical input in an anthology like this, as Vance has too often been afforded uncomfortable outpourings of sycophancy. But I am disappointed that she seems to be targeting this novel with resentments that may more justifiably have been pointed elsewhere.